The Science Behind Why Parents Shame One Another
Parents are constantly shamed for their choices. From how we feed our children to how we educate them, everyone has an opinion on how to raise kids. The result? Moms and dads feel endlessly judged for the choices they make — even if they have no other options. This week, families around the country are sharing their inspiring, funny, honest, and heartbreaking stories with Yahoo Parenting in an effort to spark conversations, a little compassion, and change in the way we think about parenting forever. Share your story with us — #NoShameParenting.
Last week I posted a photo on Facebook of my almost-2-year-old daughter beaming at preschool drop-off. I got a lot of “Aw, so cute” comments, but then this one popped up: “Wow, she’s going to preschool already? But she’s so young!” And suddenly the tiny twinge of guilt I’d suppressed when I said goodbye to her that morning erupted.
I began questioning my decision to enroll her in preschool. I wondered if others thought I was negligent for sending her “so young.” I felt defensive and briefly considered replying that my daughter was in a “2s program” and loves it. Besides, I work from home and needed to get more done during the day. But then I asked myself, Why do I care?
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Parents everywhere experience shaming on all sorts of levels — there’s the breastfeeding thing, the working-mom thing, even what time our kids go to bed has become fodder for eye rolls and “I would never do that’s. The comments aren’t always intended to be hurtful — I like to think the Facebook comment wasn’t — but it’s clear that we’ve become a society of opinions. Everyone has one on everyone else’s parenting decisions.
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I’ll admit that I have occasionally judged other parents. I usually do it in my head or while talking to my husband or mom friends, but here’s the thing: Even if you don’t send these thoughts out into the universe, they’re still toxic for all mothers and fathers.
“Parents are often judgmental because they’re insecure about their own decisions,” Andrea Bonior, PhD, a clinical psychologist, tells Yahoo Parenting. “If we’re not confident about our choices, it can make us feel better to look at somebody else and say, ‘Oh, well, she’s doing it wrong; she’s more clueless than I am.’”
It’s the old “put other people down to build yourself up” routine — and it’s nothing new. “Comparing ourselves to others is human nature,” Deborah Ledley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Becoming a Calm Mom, tells Yahoo Parenting. “We look around to see how we’re doing, and we tend to make social comparisons specifically designed to boost our self-efficacy.” For example, if you’re frustrated by how little your baby is sleeping, you might home in on stories about parents who are bungling sleep training even worse than you.
But in recent years, parental shaming has gotten increasingly worse. Chalk it up to the Internet, which allows us to compare ourselves with the carefully cultivated lives on Instagram and Facebook. So instead of feeling good that you packed your child a healthy lunch, you feel like a slacker because said lunch didn’t resemble a Pinterest picture — locally sourced and cut into the shape of barnyard animals.
Our digital age also offers information overload — and it’s often conflicting. “In past generations, someone might ask their mother, grandmother, or neighbor for advice because there were no listservers, blogs, or search engines,” says Bonior. “Having so much information has created an environment where we second-guess ourselves constantly.”
What’s more, parenting has almost become a competitive sport that people want to win, due in part to the number of couples waiting until later in life to have kids and having more disposable income than past generations. Back then, parents doing their best was enough because it had to be. Nowadays, that’s not the case. “Many moms and dads are able to enroll their kids in all sorts of activities, pay for tutors and prep programs, take their kids on trips, and this becomes grounds for social comparison,” says Ledley.
Lastly, because parents are spending more time with their kids than ever before, it can blur the boundaries between parent and child. “We live in a very child-focused society where parents’ identities have become incredibly tied up in what their kids are doing,” says Ledley. “Kids are expected to be great at everything — school, sports, social lives — and if they’re not, it’s seen as a reflection on the parents.”
But the “parenting wars” cause us to take serious stands with our own beliefs and to view family decisions as black-and-white. The problem there, says Bonior, is that “it can keep us from being able to make the complicated, nuanced decisions that good parenting requires.”
So what can we do to stop the shame cycle? “I’m a big proponent of honesty,” says Ledley. “I’m the first mom to share that my child is struggling in an area or didn’t get the big part in the play. If I set the tone in my friendships that I am not perfect, and neither are my kids, then my friends can share their struggles too and our kids benefit in turn.”
Hopefully we can all get to a place where we’re able to celebrate — or not concern ourselves with — how other families live (I know it’s on my to-do list), but in the meantime, try to remember that if someone is questioning your decisions, the issue is often about them. “Think of the woman who likes to comment on your child’s missing socks or her behavior in the grocery store,” says Bonior. “Maybe she’s reflecting on the things she did wrong as a parent or is trying to connect. It’s not always about you.” —Erin Zammett Ruddy
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